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Real funny; Those who lived the story give film integrity

There's nothing like cancer to sharpen your sense of humor.

What so many know who have dealt intimately over the long term with their own or a friend's or relative's cancer is that they, and everyone around them, discover what's truly funny and what isn't. And, yes, some of it can get pretty dark.

"5 0/5 0" is a good, mildly powerful, mildly funny, modest little tearjerker about that very thing. It works in its mild way because it came from life and you know it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the best young actors around, plays a Seattle NPR producer who discovers that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. Seth Rogen is his beefy, bluff, blustering best friend, a crude, sexually avid dunderhead who turns out to be far more good-hearted and supportive, in his way, than anyone might have guessed.

Hey, he tells his buddy, think of all those celebs who have beaten cancer -- Dexter (Michael C. Hall, he means), Lance Armstrong, Patrick Swayze. Patrick Swayze's dead, replies his newly diagnosed friend with mordant realism.

The odds, he's been told, are "5 0/5 0."

"If you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds," chimes in his relentlessly upbeat buddy.

And thereby hangs a crucial behind-the-camera tale about this movie. It's taken from the real lives of co-star Rogen and the film's writer, Will Reiser. They've been through something like it. And that's why "5 0/5 0" exists and lets you know immediately that this is a tale told from life and not a reconstruction taken from film "dramedy" ether.

When the newly diagnosed Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is assigned a clumsy, by-the-book 24-year-old therapist (Anna Kendrick) who's actually only a doctoral candidate and incompetently treating her third "patient," you know for a fact that you're watching a movie that someone -- maybe even a couple of "someones" -- actually lived through. That's not an invention that would occur to someone synthesizing a comedy about cancer from bits and pieces of experience. It's much too raw for that.

Nor are Adam's entirely unexpected troubles with his artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who says all the right things and doesn't mean a single word of them. She lets him know that she'd rather wait in the car, in fact, than go into the hospital waiting room while he has his chemotherapy.

Her affair with a fellow artist is down the road.

And there, too, this has the feel of experience behind the jokes and the underplayed dramatic turns (including Adam's desire to accommodate his mother already dealing with a husband with Alzheimer's. She's played by Anjelica Huston).
Just to make sure you understand how committed to this movie these people are, there is a scene in which Gordon-Levitt, on camera, shaves his hair off to make room for the chemotherapy effects to come. That's an actor's very real hair coming off.

His primal scream in the car, then, is completely unexpected and all the more powerful for it.

You really don't want to overstate anything about "5 0/5 0." It has too much comic integrity for that.

But in at least two cases -- Gordon-Levitt and Howard -- this is a superbly acted movie. Gordon-Levitt was cast in the part almost literally in the last minute. Howard -- the drop-dead gorgeous daughter of Ron Howard -- has shown a willingness at this stage of her career to appear on film in some shockingly dislikable parts (see "The Help").

The movie earns every laugh and every tear with integrity.

A fine little movie -- moving and funny and to be trusted.

Completely.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

5 0/5 0    

3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard    

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Levine    

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes    

RATING: R for language, sexual content and some drug use.    

THE LOWDOWN: A young man discovers he has a rare spinal cancer and learns some surprising truths about his life.

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